The great thing about the current (golden?) era in boardgames is there is something for almost every situation, timeframe, preference and mood.
“Hey, you didn’t happen to see a light, 30-35 minute, civilization-themed, dice-rolling, engine-building game with limited interaction and a standout solo-variant walking by this way, did you?”
“Why yes, I did see Nations: The Dice Game heading in that direction!”
In this quick and enjoyable game, players start off as an ancient tribe and take turns erecting buildings, acquiring colonies, recruiting advisors and constructing Wonders of the world in an effort to establish a powerful and prestigious civilization.
At the start of the game, a randomized selection of tiles from the first “age” are placed onto appropriate spaces of the central Progress Board. Buildings, advisors, military units and wonders are purchased with gold and colonies are “purchased” with swords. “Hey all! We’d really like this territory. How’d you like all these swords in exchange for your homeland? K thanks.” Players take turns taking actions until they choose to pass. Then you do end of round scoring. Repeat the process for four “ages,” count up all the points on your tiles for endgame scoring and you’re done. Like I said, the game is light and quick.
Players begin the first age by rolling their five white starting dice, then taking turns using the resources shown on the die faces to buy tiles from the Progress Board. Players also start off with a couple chits, one gold and one reroll, which always count for their printed icon and obviously, being chits, do not need to be rolled. (Truth be told, they are round and you could conceivably roll them, although one might question your sanity). Dice and chits can only be spent once in any given round and are moved to the used pile when you spend them.
There are five primary icons in the game: Gold, Swords, Wheat, Stone (I think…looks sort of like a bag of potatoes, but somehow you build Wonders with them, so I’m going with Stone), and Books. Each of these symbols can be found on the white dice that each player starts the game with. However, what you are trying to do in this game is replace and augment these fairly volatile white starting dice with more powerful and predictable colored dice. The yellow dice represent productivity, the blue dice represent science and engineering and the red dice represent military strength. If you’re able to secure some or all of these dice types into your resource pool, then you have a much better chance of rolling some of everything you want over the course of a round. Add to this the capability to reroll multiple times via advisors, and you can exert a fair amount of control over your resources.
My favorite part of the game is the mechanism by which players obtain the new dice. It’s a fun, unique way to handle expanding capabilities, increasing resources, and gives a thematic sense of momentum, which is an important thing to convey in any game that claims to be about civilization building. When you buy a tile or complete a Wonder, you receive the resources (dice or chits) shown on the tile immediately, and you’re able to use them in the current round. For example, say you have a gold showing on one of your white dice and you use it purchase a Windmill (which provides a Blue and White die). When you buy the Windmill, you need to place the tile on one of the five building slots on your player board, meaning you’ll need to cover up one of your five starting buildings. When you do this, you first discard the white die shown on the building (since you just covered it up) and draw a new blue and a new white die. Then (best part), you roll both new dice. It may feel like you just discarded and drew the same white die, but since you can discard the die from your used pile, perhaps the same one you just used to purchase the Windmill, you’re effectively using that die twice. It’s also a fun way to incorporate more dice rolling into the game, which is a nice effect and lots of fun.
For a dice roller, it was surprising to me how well the game handled short term planning. On successive actions, you could, say, grab the Longships with a gold, parlay your new swords from the new red die into taking a colony, then with the Stone chit you receive from the new territory, finish your wonder. It’s a satisfying feeling to watch each step thematically lead to the next, plan the growth trajectory for your civ and work your dice with rerolls from your advisors to get it done.
It’s worth some time to discuss how scoring works in the game. It’s very simple, but presents some interesting choices throughout the game. After all players have passed, unused dice showing Books, Wheat and Swords are used to 1) advance your position on the knowledge track, 2) pay the amount of wheat on the Event Tile (I guess your people are so glad they didn’t starve they give you some points), and 3) pay the amount of swords on the Event tile (you win some abstracted war and thus receive “glory”). These three things are actually the only ways you will score points outside of end game scoring. All other scoring happens at the end of the game and comes exclusively from points printed on tiles, primarily wonders, with a few more from late-game colonies and fourth-era buildings. Things like breweries and observatories and samurai give you zero points in and of themselves.
So while the books you roll with your blue dice aren’t doing much for you as you’re trying to complete your wonder, you score points each round for every player you’re ahead of on the knowledge track. The three wheat you rolled looked like prime candidates for rerolls, but buying that sawmill doesn’t get you any points, whereas paying the wheat does. So you need to decide which is more valuable at the time. Swords are the only resource that you have a choice of whether to spend during the round or keep for the end-of-round scoring. In addition, the 1st player marker goes to the player with the most unused swords. So if everyone else is heading off to war grabbing colonies, perhaps you decide to preserve your strength, score some points and then act first next turn and make your move. Initially, scoring was a little counterintuitive for me – I was surprised to see that building Stonehenge in the first age didn’t give you points at the end of each round. The system works, though, and I like the fact that you really have to consider what a building is doing for you at any given time since the opportunity cost of that building may have been some end of round points.
There are a lot of interesting choices to be made in this game and it’s very engaging from start to finish. The game sets up in just a few minutes, and is over in about a half-hour. It’s quick, filled with the sense of discovery that dice rolling can provide, has a great sense of pace and momentum and allows players to puzzle through some interesting moments. To me, the best games need to tread a line between control, where you feel you’re planning your moves, and chaos, enough to elicit a small cheer when things go your way. NTDG does this very well and very smoothly.
The four “civilizations” in this game are Rome, Egypt, Greece, and Persia, otherwise known as Red, Green, Yellow and Purple. There is no difference whatsoever between the civs. While there is a strong civ-building theme in the game, I probably would have preferred that the game included a few specialized aspects of each civilization as it would have made for a richer experience. However the game can be a bit swingy at times and perhaps the designers felt that if things swung your way and matched up with a civ ability, the game would get out of hand. Ok fine. Still, I wouldn’t have minded it and you can always opt not to use any civ abilities even if you had them.
Production quality is ok, although the boards are a bit flimsy and the artwork and overall coloring of the game a little underwhelming. The graphic design is serviceable and the layout of the player boards and the scoring tracks are unobtrusive and logical. The high point for me is the dice themselves, which I suppose is a good thing for a dice game. The icons are very clear and different colors of dice and icons have a great look on the table. Given the $49.99 MSRP, overall I’d say this game was slightly underproduced. NTDG feels of similar quality to Carcassonne, and along those same lines, the price seems more appropriate for the $35-$40 range.
The most surprising thing about Nations: The Dice Game for me was the fantastic solitaire variant. Using just a few simple mechanisms, you can solo-play for a high score while losing almost none of the feel of the game. I suppose the already very low player interaction present in the game provides an assist here, but I can’t stress enough how well the solo game plays. After each action, the player rolls a 4-sided die and removes the cheapest tile in the column number rolled. Really couldn’t be easier and with the lightning fast set up and take down this is a really fun option. If you are even only casually into solitaire gaming I highly recommend taking a look.
Nations: The Dice Game
Designed By: Rustan Håkansson
Published By: Lautapelit.fi
Ages: 14 and up
Time: 10-15 Minutes per player
Mechanics: Resource management, engine building, dice rolling